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Nordic Walking

Posted by Richard Hammond at 09:27 on Tuesday 17 August 2010

Guest blogger Roger Norum (author of the new Rough Guide to Finland) on the joys of Nordic Walking, Finland-style, which he says "quite likely the healthiest and most invigorating way to propel yourself across the Scandinavian countryside"...

I've just finished a session in a co-ed sauna at 3am, where I've slopped peat mud onto several people I don’t know, swatted them with birch twigs and then jumped together with them into a freezing cold lake. Twice. Now, just outside the sauna, a group of giddy speed walkers have suited up in tyvek and armed themselves with slender ski poles to traverse the landscape. Only they're standing on flat pavement. And there's no snow on the ground: it’s summertime. In fact, despite it being the middle of the night, it's roasting out, the sun is shining and the dead silence of the forest is pierced only by the odd chirp of a bird or cricket.

Finns take immense pride in their country's expansive tracts of wilderness: some 75% of Finnish land is covered in forest, and another 10% is inland water, comprised of nearly 190,000 lakes. The country that brought you Nokia, Linux and Lordi is at the forefront of environmental awareness and sustainability: Finland ranked the greenest nation on earth in a 2007 Reader’s Digest study. Finns are leading the clean up of the Baltic Sea from decades of pollution, environmental degradation and neglect. They are switching to cleaner-burning peat-based fuels. They've even installed talking trash receptacles – which offer a musical "thank you" once you make your deposit in seven languages – in Helsinki.

Little surprise, then, that Finns have become pioneers of Nordic Walking – a strange-looking athletic activity of power walking assisted with cross-country ski poles specially modified for use on non-winter terrain. It is quite likely the healthiest and most invigorating way to propel yourself across the Scandinavian countryside.

At first blush, this calisthenic activity might strike some as looking a bit ridiculous, and I'll be the first to admit that I was a late adopter solely becuse I wasn't too comfortable with its aesthetics. But while it might look strange from afar, this phenomenon is no infomercial gimmick, and hardly a passing fad. Nordic Walking, as it's known, is possibly the best thing to reach Scandinavia since sliced herring, and no one has taken to the activity like the Finns.

My guide to this super outdoorsy experience is Liisa Tyllilä, whose company, Hiking Travel, runs Nordic Walking, kayaking and hiking tours all over Western Finland. Liisa explaines the primary advantage over regular walking: when you apply force to the poles with every stride, you use the entire body – biceps, triceps, shoulders, lats, chest, abs, and your spine. It’s a much greater workout, and compared to normal walking, your heart rate increases, you burn more calories, you improve your balance and stability. Your knees, hips and ankles are strained less, you walk faster and your entire upper body is flexed with every step. And – this is a bizarre thing when you actually experience it – it is actually easier to climb hills.

The equipment itself is fairly straightforward, though the walking poles are significantly shorter than those used in cross-country skiing. Made from either aluminum or carbon fiber, the poles come both in both one-piece and telescoping varieties, and have either simple loop, velcro or fingerless glove-type straps, allow wriests and fingers to relax.

It’s a great way to experience this unique country – from deep within evergreen Finland to right on the sidewalks of the capital: there's even a group in Helsinki (www.cityride.fi) that offers unique walking tours of interesing urban neighbourhoods on the poles.

For information on how to travel to Finland overland, see greentraveller's train journey planner: How to Travel by train from London to Helsinki.

In Finland, Hiking Travel Hit (+358 3 3483 624; www.hikingtravelhit.fi) arranges nordic walking trips, in addition to snowshoeing, canoeing and other invigorating activities in the Finnish great outdoors. Visiting walkers can stay in nearby Tampere at the Sokos Hotel Ilves (www.sokoshotels.fi). 

For information on the Tampere region, visit www.gotampere.fi/eng. Or, for more information on Finland: www.visitfinland.com/uk.

Roger Norum is the author of the new Rough Guide to Finland (£14.99).

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